Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Rockets win first postseason series since 2009

And they did it against the hated Dallas Mavericks, no less...

It's been 20 years since the Rockets' last NBA championship, and while as a fan I'd love to see them win it all again this season, I just don't see that happening. The team has suffered some key injuries, they collectively aren't great at the free throw line, they don't match up well with either of their possible second round opponents (LA Clippers or San Antonio Spurs), and one gets the feeling that this is just Golden State's year anyway.

Still, this is a team that is fun to watch, it's good to see the local team have some success in the postseason once again, and hey... anything can happen in the postseason, right?

Speaking of that 1995 championship: do yourself a favor and read the Houston Press's wonderful oral history of that amazing playoff run.

Some thoughts about TxDOT's plans for I-45 North

Last night I attended an open house at the HCC Central Campus regarding the Texas Department of Transportation's grand plans for Interstate 45 around and north of downtown Houston. This ambitious endeavor would re-route I-45 to the east and north of downtown, demolish the Pierce Elevated, put the freeway in a trench (possibly topped by green space) between downtown and 610, and massively widen the freeway between 610 and Beltway 8. Some thoughts:

This project, if it happens, will be the biggest single public works project in Houston's history. Dredging the ship channel, building the Astrodome, creating the NASA Johnson Space Center... Those are all iconic public works milestones in this city's history. But in terms of sheer cost and impact, they won't compare to this one. The cost - last night a TxDOT engineer told me that the estimated price tag for the entire project is "over six billion dollars" - dwarfs the cost of recent freeway rebuilds like the Katy or the Northwest. And the project will completely alter Houston's urban landscape around, and to the north of, downtown.

                                                                   Texas Department of Transportation
The reconstruction of I-45 won't just affect I-45. The project's limits extend all the way past downtown to I-69/US-59 in the Montrose area, where the Spur 527 split occurs. As anybody who has traveled through the "Montrose Trench" knows, this is a huge bottleneck in the eastbound/northbound direction at all hours of the day, as six lanes of traffic are forced down to three. This project would extend the trench to 288 and add lanes, thereby easing the bottleneck. The 69/59 intersection with 288 will also be completely rebuilt, as will the entirely of 69/59 east of downtown and I-10 north of it.

The over-the-freeway parks being proposed for 45 between downtown and the loop and for 45 east of downtown (where it would run concurrently with 69/59) need to happen. They are currently not included in project cost, but they would be wonderful urban amenities that would reconnect neighborhoods, boost surrounding property values and enhance the city's quality of life. For a good idea of what these green spaces could look like and how they could be used, take a look at Margaret T. Hance Park over I-10 in Phoenix, Freeway Park over I-5 in Seattle, Lake Place and Leif Erikson Parks over I-35 in Duluth, or the new Klyde Warren Park over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway in Dallas.

The fact that below-grade freeways sometimes flood is a feature, not a bug. Yes, this project is going to put a big chunk of Houston's inside-the-loop freeway network below grade. And yes, these freeway trenches will occasionally flood. However, by acting as temporary floodwater retention, these trenches will help to prevent surrounding neighborhoods from flooding during major rain events. Sure, there is the inconvenience of these freeways being closed (and the cost of a few cars being flooded out, for people dumb enough to drive into rising water), but it is exponentially less disruptive or costly than entire neighborhoods, houses, businesses, etc. being destroyed by floodwater. This is something I wish more people would understand. 

I admit it: I'll miss the Pierce Elevated. Sure, it's constantly congested and it serves as a physical as well as psychological barrier between downtown and Midtown. But I'll miss the views it provides as it swoops past all those skyscrapers on its west and south ends. Oh, and while I love the idea of the Pierce Sky Park - Houston's answer to New York City's High Line - I think pressure from real estate and developer interests to convert what is now the Pierce Elevated into developable property is going to prevent that from becoming a reality.

Right-of-way requirements are going to cause significant residential and business displacement. On the east side of downtown alone, popular restaurants like Kim Son and Huynh, Dynamo fan hangouts like Little Woodrow's, and residential complexes like the Lofts at the Ballpark and the Clayton Homes housing project will have to be demolished. And don't even get me started on all the businesses that will need to be taken in order to widen I-45 between 610 and Beltway 8. Obviously, a huge percentage of the "over six billion dollar" cost of this project will be dedicated to right-of-way acquisition, as the demand for land is so enormous. TxDOT will provide relocation assistance, but this project is still going to cause a lot of inconvenience for a lot of people.

Oh, and it's going to take many, many years for the entire project to be completed, as well.  I'm thinking a decade, give or take a few years. Construction will likely occur in stages, so that only one area of town is torn up and rebuilt at a time. I think it will be worth it once it's all complete, but there's a lot of aggravating and disrupting construction between now and then.

This project still has a few missing pieces, especially in terms of transit connectivity. There needs to be a connection from the 288 managed lanes (that are supposed to get underway soon) to the I-45 managed lanes proposed as part of this project, so that people who live in The Woodlands can get to their jobs in the Texas Medical Center or people who live in Pearland can get to their jobs at ExxonMobil's Springwoods campus. Right now, all of these managed lanes lead directly into downtown, even though a significant number of commuters (be they in cars, vanpools, or METRO and Woodlands Express buses) would likely want to use these hybrid HOV/toll lanes to go to destinations other than downtown. Also, the reconstruction of I-69/US-59 from the spur to 288 is a perfect opportunity to incorporate a portion of the fabled University Line light rail which would connect midtown with The University of Houston: since there is going to be right-of-way acquisition and construction in that corridor anyway, why not lay down tracks parallel to 69/59 between Main Street and the Alabama Street bridge?

A lot of work has gone into the current design, but it is not final. This project is not yet set in stone concrete; there's still a lot of design work to be done, and then of course there is the small detail as to where to find the "over six billion dollars" to pay for this. It's probably going to be at least five years before construction begins in earnest, so there's still time to get things right. TxDOT is soliciting comments until May 31st, 2015. Feel free to add your voice to the discussion.

The project website (including massive schematic drawings in all their take-forever-to-download glory) is here. Kuff and Swamplot have further discussion.

UH names its new Athletics Director

They didn't have to look very far to find him:
Hunter Yurachek has been named vice president for intercollegiate athletics and athletic director at the University of Houston, the school announced Tuesday.

Yurachek replaces Mack Rhoades, who announced in March he was leaving to become the new AD at Missouri.

"Hunter Yurachek is the best leader and administrator for where we are, and where we are going," UH president Renu Khator said. "He brings both a fresh perspective and a keen understanding of our strengths and opportunities."

Yurachek has spent the past 14 months serving as UH's associate vice president and chief operating officer for intercollegiate athletics, the No. 2 official in the athletic department.

"This is an exciting time to be at the University of Houston, and I embrace the challenge of leading our athletics program to the next level." Yurachek said.
Some UH fans I know are underwhelmed by this hire. They think that Houston should have found a "name" AD, or at least hired somebody with strong connections to the "Power 5" conferences that Houston wants to join. Others think that Yuraheck is going to be little more than a "yes man" for President Renu Khator and Chairman of the Board of Regents Tillman Fertitta. Still other UH fans seem to be happy with this hire, citing Yurachek's accomplishments as AD at Coastal Carolina - he was named the Football Championship Subdivision athletic director of the year in 2013-14 - and the fact that he has already had a successful tenure as second-in-command at Houston:
At UH, Yurachek has been responsible for the day-to-day oversight of UH's athletic program that comprises 17 varsity sports, more than 400 student athletes, 175 employees and a $40 million-plus operational budget.

Yurachek served as chair for a campus steering committee to oversee the grand opening of $120 million TDECU Stadium last August and helped secure a 10-year, $15 million naming rights deal for the on-campus football stadium. He also was liaison with the architectural design firm on the Cougars' $25 million basketball development facility that opens this summer and oversaw the development of $1 million in upgrades to the men's and women's basketball locker rooms at Hofheinz Pavilion and the Athletics/Alumni Center, including the addition of a student-athlete nutrition center Cougar Café.

Yurachek was also part of the search committee to hire football coach Tom Herman and men's basketball coach Kelvin Sampson and women's basketball coach Ronald Hughey.
Which makes me wonder: while Yurachek was doing all this work, what was Mack Rhoades doing?

Snark aside, Yurachek has a lot of work ahead of him: he needs to grow the season ticket base for football, get locals interested in basketball, renovate Hofheinz Pavilion, and make the Cougar program attractive to a P5 conference by the time the next round of conference realignment occurs. He also needs to raise funds, groom donors, and ensure that players graduate. Oh yeah, the programs (at least the revenue ones) need to win, as well.

Best of luck, Hunter!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

United to serve free drinks on long-haul flights

I regularly use this blog to beat up on United Airlines, so I should be fair and give them credit when they do something good for their passengers:
United Airlines passengers will no longer have to reach for their wallets if they ask for wine or beer on long-haul international flights. Not even in economy.

United says it will upgrade the food in its economy cabin, too, offering "a hearty three-course service" that will remain complimentary. Beyond that, the carrier will start selling the same light snacks that it already offers on its domestic flights.

The changes begin June 1, covering United's long-haul flights between the United States and Europe and Asia. They'll also include United flights between the U.S. and Argentina, Brazil and Chile.
Many long-haul passengers, myself included, like to have a couple of adult beverages in-flight because it relaxes and makes the flight a bit more bearable. So why is United abandoning what is obviously a lucrative source of revenue?
The return of free drinks and the upgraded meal service on the long international routes will likely be welcomed by United's economy customers. But the effort also comes as United faces stronger competitors, both in the U.S. and abroad.

American and Delta already offer complimentary wine and beer in the economy cabins of their comparable long-haul routes. So do many foreign carriers that fly to the USA, including Germany's Lufthansa, Japan's All Nippon Airways and Etihad Airways of the United Arab Emirates.
Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco, calls United's latest changes a needed first step in bringing United into line with other global carriers.

"Their alliance partners – as well as competitors – offer an open bar," Harteveldt says. "It's a small thing, but United doesn't want to lose a sale just because they're charging people for drinks in economy and other airlines are not."
This new policy, which begins June 1st, applies to beer and wine but apparently not hard liquor. And again, it only applies to transcontinental international flights, so if you're flying to Mexico, the Caribbean, Ecuador or even Hawaii, you'll still have to pay up.

Still, it's a step in the right direction for United. Cheers!

My excitement awakens

I saw the latest trailer right after it was released. Rob Tornoe sums up my feelings perfectly:
(I've been watching all six Star Wars movies with my son, and I had forgotten just how absolutely awful the prequels were: the overuse of CGI, the stilted dialogue, the wooden acting, Jar Jar Binks... I hope I'm not setting myself up for disappointment come December.)

New flights to New Zealand

The influx of international carriers into Houston continues:
Air New Zealand announced Wednesday it will add Houston as its North American destination with a flight to Auckland.

This new nonstop flight marks the 11th new international carrier added in Houston since April 2013. Air New Zealand will fly a Boeing 777-200 from Bush Intercontinental "up to" five times a week. The flight will start in mid-December with ticket sales available in May.
Air New Zealand is a Star Alliance member, so it makes sense for them to plug into fellow member United's largest hub.

Speaking of United, it's worth remembering that they had planned to offer Houston-Auckland service themselves a few years back, but canceled that flight as part of their temper tantrum when Southwest was given permission to fly internationally from Hobby.

Houston will be Air New Zealand's fourth US destination, after Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Interstate 69 comes through town

There's a new highway inside the loop:
Houston drivers will be getting a new freeway through downtown, but without a single improvement in their commute.

The Texas Transportation Commission on Thursday approved dedicating 11 miles of U.S. 59 as Interstate 69, all within Loop 610. The designation closes a gap, making 75 miles of U.S. 59 jointly I-69 in the Houston area.

In metropolitan Houston, however, it is unlikely anyone will notice a difference, or change their habits of what they call the freeway, because the "new" interstate will be dual-branded with U.S. 59.
In other words, people will still call it the Southwest Freeway south of downtown and the Eastex Freeway north of downtown.

This process began a few years ago, when the Interstate 69 designation was added to the section of the Eastex Freeway between Loop 610 and Cleveland. Interstate status was bestowed upon the portion of the Southwest Freeway between 610 and Richmond about a year later. The TTC's latest action simply closes the gap. Eventually, I-69 will stretch all the way from Mexico to Canada:
I-69 is a multi-state freeway years in the making, linking the Rio Grande Valley with Port Huron, Mich. Sometimes called the "NAFTA Highway" because it links Mexican and Canadian port cities and many U.S. metro areas, it is far from finished. Arkansas and Louisiana have not started on a single piece of the project, though planning for the interstate began in 1992.

Texas made I-69 a priority in the past decade, citing the need to improve the movement of goods through the state. Most of the effort to create I-69 is focused on improving existing federal highways to interstate standards, meaning restricted access and no at-grade intersections among other specifics.

Work along U.S. 59 between County Road 227 in Wharton County and Spur 10 in Fort Bend County, set to start this year, will upgrade the stretch so it can be designated part of I-69, as well.
So how long before the new signs go up?
First, none of the U.S. 59 signs are going away. I-69 are being added, gradually, over the next couple months, said Karen Othon, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston. Crews are making the signs, and will put them where the current U.S. 59 signs are now.

Othon said the segment officials recently designated is more complicated than others in the area because there are so many signs and references to the highway. Officials estimate the new signs along the 11-mile segment will cost about $100,000.

Larger signs, such as the overhead directional signs common above downtown lanes, won’t be replaced, Othon said. In most cases, an I-69 emblem will just be added.
For what it's worth, Google Maps wasted no time in adding the I-69 shields to their maps. And Swamplot commenters wasted no time making juvenile double-entendres.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Do not give rabbits as Easter gifts

It's been over ten years since I wrote this article. And I stand by it, even though I still get hate mail from rabbit lovers. So with Easter approaching, imagine how happy I am to see this picture making the rounds on Facebook:
Look: I don't hate rabbits. I enjoy watching the eastern cottontails that pass through my yard. I just don't think they make good pets. They require a lot of attention and care. They are not cuddly or friendly; in fact, they're rather aggressive. They can be destructive. And they most certainly should not be given (especially to children) as Easter gifts.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The legacy of Mack Rhoades

Last week, it was announced that University of Houston Athletics Director Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics Mack Rhoades would be leaving next month, to take the same job at the University of Missouri. Rhoades' biggest accomplishment while at UH was, without a doubt,  the construction of the university's new on-campus stadium; in fact, he was hired in 2009 precisely for that purpose. Work on a new practice facility for basketball is underway as well.

The Chronicle's Jerome Solomon believes that Rhoades made things better at UH during his time here. "If the only thing Rhoades accomplished during his tenure was getting the funding for the building of TDECU Stadium, his tenure would be considered a success." Solomon writes. He sees the Rhoades era as a positive one for UH Cougar athletics, even if there were some missteps along the way:
Rhoades came in as a young gun, a sharp administrator, a fundraiser, with a lot to prove.

It is arguable that under his leadership, UH has made the most significant financial commitment to athletics in the school's history.

While he made mistakes along the way, Rhoades has lifted UH.

The Tony Levine hire as football coach proved to be a head-scratcher in reality as it did on paper, and James Dickey didn't pan out as men's basketball coach.

But Rhoades quickly had impressive rebound hires in Tom Herman and Kelvin Sampson.

UH's next athletic director will thank Rhoades for a more solid ground on which to stand than an incoming UH AD has in some time.

That deserves applause.
The Houston Press's John Royal, however, is more circumspect:
The Mack Rhoades era at UH lasted five years. But his tenure leaves an open book that will not allow his work to be judged for several more years. He inherited a football team teetering on the edge of national relevance, a basketball team barely hanging onto relevance, two deteriorating stadiums, and a second-tier conference affiliation mainly consisting of teams with no historical ties to Houston or to Texas. 

As Rhoades departs, UH is still very much a work in progress. A football stadium has been built, but Hofheinz is barely holding together. The football team survived a disastrous coaching hire, but still teeters on the brink of national relevance while the basketball team was nearly killed by a disastrous coaching hire. And the school's still affiliated with a second-tier conference with almost no historical ties to UH or to Texas.

Rhoades deserves as much credit as possible for getting TDECU built. He worked tirelessly to get the needed funds, discovering along the way that UH alums talk big games, but often fail to back the talk up with checks made payable to the athletic department (it took the UH students agreeing to add on to their already onerous student fees to help get the thing built). But for all of the good done on the stadium, Rhoades blew it with the hiring of Tony Levine to replace Kevin Sumlin when Sumlin split for Texas A&M.
Royal points to the TDECU Stadium opener last August - a once-in-a-lifetime event, and perhaps the most anticipated event in the history of Cougar football - that was marred by a humiliating, momentum-killing 7-27 loss to double-digit-underdog UTSA: a loss that was the result of Rhoades' decision to promote woefully-underqualified assistant Tony Levine to head coach after Kevin Sumlin left. Or, as a friend of mine put it: "TDECU is the reason why we hired Rhoades. And the first game in TDECU is the reason why we should shed no tears about him leaving."

If Rhoades' decision to hire Tony Levine was a poor one, and his decision to give Levine a raise and contract extension right before the 2014 season an even poorer one, his decision to hire James Dickey to be head basketball coach - a hire I called a "bad April Fool's joke" at the time - bordered on utter incompetence. One of my concerns about Mack Rhoades when he was hired was that he had little experience in hiring coaches, and that concern was justified. Royal continues:
While the momentum of the Sumlin-era football team was stalled by Levine, whatever momentum was generated by Penders was jettisoned by Dickey. The squad was hit by player defections, dispirited play, and struggles against both vastly inferior competition and superior competition. Yet it could have been worse for basketball. The rumors are that Rhoades wanted to hire Billy Gillispie but that his choice was vetoed. Gillispie who had been fired after only two years as head coach of the college basketball factory known as Kentucky, instead ended up at Texas Tech after the UH job fell through, and he flamed out in spectacular style, being hit by allegations of abusing and mistreating his players. 

Rhoades appears to have righted the football and basketball ships by hiring the highly sought-after Tom Herman to coach football and by bringing on Kelvin Sampson, a former Rockets assistant coach who was highly successful as the head coach at Oklahoma and Indiana, to rescue the basketball team. But as Rhoades departs, it's still soon to say for sure that the two sports (the most important in the NCAA sports hierarchy) will recover from the disaster that was inflicted on them by the men Rhoades initially hired to be head coach.
As hopeful as I am about Tom Herman, he hasn't coached a single game yet, so it's still a bit early to call that hire a success (if indeed Rhoades had that much to do with that hire; rumors are swirling that the hire was a decision made above his head). And the UH mens basketball team just finished their season with a 13-19 record, so Kelvin Sampson has a long way to go before the program becomes competitive again. Hopefully Sampson can right the ship with his recruiting efforts; right now there is no local interest in Cougar basketball, and there won't be any until the team becomes competitive again. There's also the issue of basketball facilities, which Rhoades did not fully address while he was here:
And while Rhoades got TDECU Stadium built, Hofheinz Pavilion has continued to deteriorate. There's still no plan to replace or renovate the arena, and there's supposedly not much money available for use on the replacing/renovating. The place is a dump, and even if the team was good, it's difficult to imagine any but the most hard core fans wanting to come out to the games.
It's worth noting that TDECU Stadium is over budget and still not even 100% complete, but it's not clear if Rhoades bears any responsibility for that. What is clear is that Rhoades experienced friction with other University of Houston administrators, in particular Executive Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Carl Carlucci, regarding the construction and operation of the stadium, which doubtlessly made Rhoades' decision to move on an easy one.

The bottom line, according to Royal:
It'll probably be a few more years until the full legacy of Mack Rhoades at UH can be evaluated. If Tom Herman turns UH into a Texas version of Ohio State, and if Kelvin Sampson can rebuild basketball, then the Rhoades era will be an unqualified success. Baseball and the smaller sports are in really good shape, there has been tremendous academic growth from the athletes, and then there's TDECU Stadium. So at least things are looking up for the Houston Cougars. 
A lot, of course, will depend on who the University of Houston hires to be its next athletics director. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

A step closer to flights to Mexico from Hobby

A regulatory hurdle cleared:
Southwest Airlines has won U.S. approval to fly from Houston to Mexico City and San Jose del Cabo.

Southwest plans to operate the flights beginning in October from a new international terminal being built at Houston's Hobby Airport.

The number of flights between the U.S. and Mexico is limited by treaty, but the U.S. Department of Transportation indicated Tuesday that both countries agreed to allow additional airlines to fly across the border.
Southwest has also filed with US and Mexican authorities for approval to fly from Hobby to Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. It has also requested approval for flights from Hobby to San Jose, Costa Rica, and Belize City, Belize. No word on when those approvals will be granted, or what other international destinations Southwest might serve from Hobby in the future.

That being said, international flights to Hobby are now a reality: one week ago, the airport welcomed its first international flight since the 1960s, a Southwest 737 from the Caribbean island of Aruba. The international terminal at Hobby is not set to be complete until later this year, but (as I noted in a previous post) the presence of a US Customs preclearance facility at Aruba's Queen Beatrix airport allows this particular flight to be handled as a domestic arrival.

What will be interesting to see is if any airlines other than Southwest avail themselves to Hobby's international facilities. Several low-cost Mexican airlines -Interjet, VivaAerobus and Volaris - either have or will soon start service from Mexico to Bush Intercontinental. At that airport they face competitition with United's extensive Latin American network, as well as all the Latin American services that cattle carrier Spirit is adding from IAH. Given that Hobby is close to the Hispanic neighborhoods of the East End and Pasadena, would some of these airlines consider flying from that airport instead? Would an airline be willing to step into the void and fly from Hobby to Latin American cities that United has abandoned, like Mazatlán or Guayaquil?